Years ago, an unbelievable classified ad appeared in a magazine that found an anonymous person seeking a partner for time travel. The ad’s intention was unknown. Was it merely a tool for trolling or was it a sincere offer that allowed the estranged some level of hope? The ad, which has found itself being mocked on Jay Leno’s late night show, has grown into an internet meme that often accompanies an image of a man who looks perpetually stuck in the eighties. More specifically, the man is sporting metal band hair and beady eyes that indicate a shallow intellect. Cynicism smothered the meme, but oddly enough, years ago the original author stepped out of the shadows of anonymity. According to the ad’s writer, John Silveira, a mass amount of people desperately wanted to rework the fabric of their past. Even if the ad appeared as a ruse, which most people assumed, there was still a glimmer of hope that it offered to a select few. I can’t judge these people or see them as delusional because the need to alter the past is a symptom of growing old. Surprisingly, this is the emotional core for Safety Not Guaranteed.
The past is stifling Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza), a young college grad that lives a life of malaise and disinterest. Much of her emotional arrested development hinges on a tragic moment in her past, but amplifying her behavior is a dead-end internship at a Seattle based magazine. The internship pays zero dividends until an article opportunity shows itself through the “safety not guaranteed” ad. Writer Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) proposes to investigate the ad and find out who wrote it. So, with approval, Jeff assembles Darius and intern Arnau (Karan Soni), an overly educated-sex less college student, to hunt down the ad’s original author. Through their research, the trio discovers that the author of the ad is Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a grocery clerk that rocks a jean jacket and spouts time based theories like a waterfall emits water. Due to a string of circumstances, the crux of the investigative reporting falls on Darius. Her mission is simple: she must infiltrate Kenneth’s trust to understand the man behind the mystery. As it turns out, through her interactions with Kenneth, Darius begins to shed her tough exterior and sincerely renders herself based off the poetic whims and musings of the self-prescribed time traveler. Together, Darius and Kenneth train for time travel, which includes shooting a gun at the tail end of a front roll, and ultimately fall in love. Undeniably, it’s a relationship we can’t wait to see occur.
The most interesting aspect about the plot of Safety Not Guaranteed, outside of its streamlined narrative, is the fact it’s not about whether Kenneth can actually infiltrate time’s structure. Time travel is merely a MacGuffin. Safety Not Guaranteed is about the kind of damage, heartache, and regret that would make someone want to rework the ripples of time. Both Darius and Kenneth represent broken beings. Their deeply rooted issues are brilliantly brought up in authentic, underscored scenes that deftly mix comedy and heart wrenching drama. Where Kenneth and Darius boldly dare to dream of literally revisiting the past, Jeff Schwensen does so in a figurative sense by searching for a high school sweetheart that lives within distance of his investigation. Jeff’s parallel story sweetly reinforces the film’s theme about reigniting the past at a certain cost. His arc is a testament to the deadly combination great acting and great writing can make, a notion found throughout the entire film.
Considering the film’s setup, and Kenneth’s off kilter appearance, Safety Not Guaranteed could’ve easily been a one note joke that paints its protagonist as stupidity lacking reality. Fortunately, it doesn’t go that route. The screenplay is much more interested in treating Kenneth like a human being. Mark Duplass’ performance bears this sentiment. Duplass plays the role perfectly with purity, as he never delivers Kenneth’s idiosyncrasies with a wink and a smile. He’s fleshed out and invariably believes that he can accomplish his time based mission. Because Kenneth has an undebatable belief in his abilities to time travel, it’s awfully hard not to believe that he will achieve what he’s been pining for. Duplass’ performance meets its equal in Aubrey Plaza who, in the film’s first act, channels the shtick that made her famous in Parks and Recreation, but her typical temperament changes dramatically as the film goes on. To put it bluntly, Plaza sensationally rides out her character’s trajectory with surprising grace and resonance. I didn’t entirely expect her performance, but then again, I didn’t think Safety Not Guaranteed would be this great. Who would’ve thought that an ad done out of necessity, which has mutated into fodder for internet jesters, would lend itself to a triumphant, hopeful and disarming film? I didn’t. Now, I wish I can go back in time and slap the ignorance from my defunct mind.